People respond to change in ways that reflect their background meaning, not through generic grief cycles
This is the second in a series of posts about Patricia Benner’s work described in her book The Primacy of Caring on how people deal with growth and loss as they are lived or experienced. Much of the literature on change management considers these in terms of a grief cycle, but I think Benner has a much more nuanced and useful way of considering the response of your employees to change.
Benner proposes that humans grasp a situation directly in terms of its meaning for themselves, as opposed to going through a standard grief cycle. And that the ability to grasp the meaning of situations is made possible by four aspects of our humanness:
- Embodied intelligence
- Background meaning
An earlier post discussed embodied intelligence.
The second of Benner’s attributes of humanness is that we develop background meaning, a determination of what is real for us individually.
Background meaning is formed through the person’s experience of the world, through early encounters with family and then through wider connections with the outside world.
These experiences form our understanding of what is real, what is right, what is true in the world. Being a shared, public understanding of what is, it determines what counts as ‘right’ for that person.
Background meaning is not a thing in itself, but is a way of understanding the world. It is like a light – you don’t see the light itself, but you see what it illuminates. In a similar way, the background meaning itself is invisible but it illuminates your world and determines what you see and what you don’t see.
Because we are embodied intelligences, we take in cultural background meanings from birth. For example Caudill and Weinstein1 found that Japanese babies and American babies became thoroughly Japanese or American by the ages of three or four months. The Japanese babies were physically passive and watchful of things and people around them. The American babies were physically active and constantly engaging vocally and physically with their mothers. The researchers attributed this to the culturally distinct interactive patterns of mother and child. The Japanese understand the newborn to be a separate, uncivilised being who needs to be brought into the family and made civilised. The Americans understand the baby to be a helpless dependent being who needs to be encouraged to be autonomous.
So, for an individual, background meaning is provided by the family, culture and sub-cultures to which that person belongs. It is taken up in individual ways in particular circumstances but always within the constraints of what is culturally acceptable.
The implication of this for you as a leader of change is that when you recognise that people will respond to change initiatives in accordance with their background meaning, you will be able to make sense of employees’ responses without being polarised into seeing these responses purely as ‘resistance.’
If you see employees as demonstrating ‘resistance’ then your only alternative is to try to deal with something opposing you – which leads only to attempts to either persuade (sell) or bypass those
If you consider the background meaning of your employees, it will allow you a wider range of ways of engaging with those employees rather than only as ‘resistant.’
Benner’s approach offers the option of exploring what the background meaning is that is leading the employees to have the response that looks like resistance.
The concept of background meaning may prompt you as a leader also to consider your own background meaning, and also what you know about the employees’ background meaning and how this might be influencing the ‘resistant’ response. Understanding the employees’ background meaning can help leaders to respond in ways that open up the possibility of change. The alternative is to engage with employees as though they are resistant, and this leads to stand offs with little possibility of resolution.
1 Caudill W. and Weinstein H. 1969 Maternal Care and infant behaviour in Japan and America, Psychiatry, 32:12.
Benner’s approach is based on the phenomenologist philiosophy of Martin Heidegger.